OTB 10: Of ‘Zooni’ and Other Untold Stories of Dimple Kapadia

As we spoke, Dimple Kapadia revealed to me that hers was a tormented marriage in which she faced physical abuse.

8 min read
Muzaffar Ali’s <i>Zooni </i>remains incomplete to this day.

Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first nine blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King
Out of the Box Part 8: Journalism Without a Prism or Blinkers
Out of the Box Part 9: How Fake News is Harming Journalism

Even with so many young men and women working at Newstrack, I did not witness a single instance of men imposing themselves on any female teammate. That is not to say that it was a sterile place. Many years later, when the team became large and the office numbers went up to triple digits, there would be many romances and weddings between ‘Newstrackers’. When we started out, however, we were a small bunch of hungry Samurai, focused on a mission.

Whatever may have been missing in terms of in-house atmospherics, was more than made up for by our step-in talent. One particular freelance talent I remember clearly is Pamela Rooks. The woman had sheer sexual presence and charisma. All the men jostled to work with her and all the women felt underdressed in her presence.

In hind sight, I feel Pam’s good looks often made others underestimate the brilliant, ticking mind she had. She ought to have gotten more challenging assignments and far meatier stories, but that often did not happen. Much later, when her directorial debut Train to Pakistan got rave international reviews, Pam’s talent got the validation it had always deserved.

It has often made me wonder about how women never seem to have it easy. If they are attractive, people say it’s ‘distracting’. If they are not, people often don’t engage. Being a bit of a borderline case – I ended up with great working collaborations.

Television reporting is all about the team work. Every cog – big or small – plays a large part in the success and failure of each story. In fact, some of the most unexpected hits happen when the entire flock lifts the net together.


The Unreleased Zooni and Dimple’s Horrific Story

My first story with cameraperson Ajmal Jami was a visit to Kashmir to cover the filming of Zooni – a period film by Muzaffar Ali on Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon. On the first morning of our shoot, I looked out of the window to discover that a snow storm had covered virtually everything under one foot of snow. Our crew came down to the lobby expecting the shoot to be cancelled, but instead we found a beaming Muzaffar. Apparently, this day’s scene was central to the film and a snow-covered landscape would be ideal for its dramatic visualisation. In the said scene, Zooni runs away in panic on her wedding night when she realises that marriage would be a golden cage that would shackle her creative voice.

Driving 20 kilometres out of Srinagar, the film crew reached a pristine rural setting where Dimple Kapadia had to run barefoot across the snow. Her feet turned blue, her face was frozen, but she didn’t let out a single whimper despite repeated takes! Snug in my fur-lined boots, I felt a mixture of pity and sympathy for Dimple Kapadia. Bollywood may seem glamorous but one has to witness its hardships first-hand to know the sheer drudgery it can call for.

We perched ourselves on a fallen log for the next shot in which Zooni was supposed to run across the half-frozen rivulet. Feeling concerned for Dimple, I was looking intently at her face – when suddenly, I heard a collective groan from the entire film unit. The camera assistant had sunk upto his chest in a hidden crevice next to the river! He instinctively raised his hands and saved the camera, even as he kept sinking in the frozen water.

I was shocked and looked towards my teammates, expecting to see the same surprise on their faces. Instead, I saw three faces with identical wry smiles of approval – a validation that this is exactly how a crew is supposed to behave. ‘Save the damn camera, come what may’ is the universal motto of crews. Equipment is a part of their anatomy, like an extra limb. This incident remains etched in my memory as an example of that commitment.

It was on this shoot that I realised how handy our cameraperson Ajmal Jami’s wit could be. For instance, a young film unit member named Murad was being reluctant about giving the Newstrack team proper access to the set. Jami playfully and humorously started addressing him ‘Na-Murad’ to his face. Soon, the whole film unit was following his cue; ultimately, the kid had to stop being a brat and give our crew unhindered right of passage.

With heavy snow and early ‘packups’, we would often head to Dimple Kapadia’s room for cups of Kahwa and gup sessions. Mary Mcffaden, the diva American designer, her supremely talented foreign team as also Indian collaborators – which included the now renowned designer Suneet Verma – and a host of other Bollywood talent would get together in Dimple’s large suite for casual addas.

One day, as I reached early, I found Dimple Kapadia sitting alone. Perhaps because it was a grey, cold evening away from home or perhaps because she had realised that I was not a part of the typical Mumbai reporters ecosystem.... Dimple started talking wistfully about her life.

It was already well known that Dimple, as a teen, had been married off to superstar Rajesh Khanna who was almost twice her age. But that day she revealed to me that hers was a tormented marriage in which she faced physical abuse. As I listened to the gory details of her marriage – which included beatings much worse than fisticuffs on the face and on the body – I was dumbfounded that a woman of her immense beauty and talent could be a silent victim. In the years since, I have often observed that even empowered and articulate women are afraid of the repercussions and scorn that they and their children will face if they reveal the abuse.

I also marvel at the conspiracy of silence that men practise. In all the years since, thousands within the Mumbai film industry must have known about Kakaji’s abuse of the teen girl married to him. But of course, everyone was too bedazzled by Rajesh Khanna’s cinematic sparkle and even today, people continue to churn out whitewashed elegies to the man without considering his ‘fatal flaw’ – that of physically abusing a woman.

One might also recall the very public instances of abuse of Reena Roy, Zeenat Aman among many others. Interesting to note that no man ever squeals on another man in the industry when they hear these stories of ‘me too’.

Back to the Zooni shoot. Throughout the filming, Muzaffar Ali, the director, seemed to be in a trance and would regale us with Zooni’s poems. Muzaffar Ali’s obsessive love for Zooni was perhaps his fatal flaw... it was prophetic that this film remains incomplete to this day....

Of Fatal Flaws

Meanwhile, the general election was working up the opposition parties in a tizzy, but it was also exposing the pressures within the ruling Congress party – to a point where fatal flaws were hanging out for all to see.

Non-performance of ministers aside, one peculiar Congress affliction was internal dissidence. In one such dramatic incident, a group of MPs were stalling the House proceedings and not letting any Bills pass. While we were taking stock shots of the dissidents, I suddenly saw cameraperson Jami pull out the legs of the tripod and position the camera really low. He captured the shot of a dissident Congress leader with his flatulent expanse, legs spread out and his pyjama string hanging out – it was a picture that spoke louder than words. I had no idea that Jami had taken this shot until we reached the studio.

Jami’s visual illustration of Congress’s internal decay was far more effective than any narration. The story became a runaway hit in those days when the audience had access only to complimentary pictures of politicians.

We were taken aback by the buzz this small bit of uncensored footage created.

Zafar Aga – one of the reporters at India Today said that it was the ‘Julie’ syndrome – referring to the hit Bollywood film where just a fleeting shot of the heroine’s lingerie had the whole nation swooning and fainting since they had only seen cinematic shots that were heavily censored, until then. Aga’s hypothesis was that people were so starved of authentic political pictures that even a sneak peek at the political underbelly on Newstrack had created chatter.

The jealousy and competition within the ruling Congress party had risen to such heights that internal functionaries would logjam their own chief ministers. On one shoot, we landed up in Bihar where Chief Minister Bhagwat Jha Azad was cracking the whip on his own Congress MLAs who were not letting him work. The story was, in fact, sympathetic to Bhagwat Jha Azad, so I was taken aback when in the middle of his interview, Azad started yelling at the crew to switch off the camera, asking his security to confiscate our tapes and warning me of dire consequences.

Cameraman Ashok Kashyap and sound recordist Bharath K took off the CM’s lapel, switched off one light and walked out of the room while I tried to placate the raging CM. Even this did not calm the man who continued his loud tirade against me. I tried to reason with him but he had a scary temper.

Finally, I called the crew in again and asked them to pack up. Rebuked and shouted at – I was shaken up as we piled into our ambassador taxi. Barely had we gone a kilometre, than the whole crew started hooting triumphantly and yodelling like they had gone crazy. Apparently, they had hatched a rather impromptu plan – all three members of the crew had moved out of the room, leaving the camera rolling behind them. Therefore, it had continued recording the chief minister as he raved and shouted.

And thus came about the first such ‘candid camera’ moment on Indian television when a CM was seen threatening a hapless reporter. The story became a big hit and Newstrack’s popularity reached another milestone. Nevertheless, we kept our editorial balance and mentioned repeatedly in our telecasts that although Bhagwat Jha Azad was a well-meaning politician, his anger was possibly his fatal flaw.

As this episode was ‘sent’ to telecast, the closing day atmosphere inside the newsroom felt a little like a college fest. But I was sitting with a ticking time bomb in my purse. I had been given the ‘biodata’ of a prospective groom and had been told not to leave for any out-of-station assignments.

As the family was sitting down to dinner at home, the phone rang. It was G Parthasarthy from the PMO. “Ratanlal ji, Nutan Gupta is your daughter, na ?” “Yes, why?” asked my father with apprehension. “Mani Shanker Aiyer just gave me the list. Good news! Her trip to Amethi with the PM is approved.”

“Hain!” said my surprised father. Hanging up, he sighed, “Ek aur tanta.”


(Nutan Manmohan has been Vice President Star Tv & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA . Her film ‘ The Last Flight ‘ on vulture conservation got the ‘ Wild Wing OBE ‘ award UK . Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 is scheduled for release on Facebook this year.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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